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Trudeau loads up NAFTA’s ark with every species of critic

Just as Noah assembled two of every animal before the flood came, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government is assembling one of every kind of potential North American free-trade agreement negotiation critic before talks begin in two weeks.

The NAFTA council the Liberal government unveiled Wednesday is designed to make these negotiations look like they are no mere act of partisan governing but instead a Great Canadian Initiative, beyond the reach of political squabbling.

What are the views of organized labour? The president of the Canadian Labour Congress, Hassan Yussuff, is on the council. There's the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Perry Bellegarde. There's Linda Hasenfratz, CEO of car-parts maker Linamar Corp., whose industry has a lot at stake. There's a banker, and a movie-theatre executive. What about someone who represents farmers? Check. There's former interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose, who just a few months ago was leading the opposition to Mr. Trudeau's Liberals. There's another prominent Tory and a New Democrat, too. Check, check, check. The Liberals are patting themselves on the back for bringing them all in the tent.

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Lyndon Baines Johnson once observed it's sometimes better to have people inside the tent pissing out than the reverse. Now that these folks are on a government advisory council, you'd think, they're less likely to deliver their opinion of the government's handling of the talks in the form of trenchant quotes in the news. New Democrat Brian Topp, a former chief of staff to Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, insisted he hasn't been muzzled. But it may encourage others to be gentle. And there are other reasons for wanting potential critics in the tent.

The big one is that the Liberal government wants these negotiations to be seen a national project, not a Liberal one. This advisory council helps them project the image that the home team is the whole country, not the Trudeau government. It follows on the highly visible move to solicit former prime minister Brian Mulroney's advice.

That might be good strategy for the negotiations, with so much potentially at stake for the Canadian economy. But it's almost certainly good politics.

The more that the NAFTA talks are seen as a national endeavour, the more it will seem churlish, maybe even a little traitorous, to take political swipes at the handling of the negotiations. Contrast that with the political environment that Mr. Mulroney faced during the Canada-U.S. free-trade talks of the 1980s, when Liberal Roy MacLaren warned that his party would blame "every sparrow that falls" on free trade. Mr. Mulroney eventually reaped the political rewards of signing the deal, but he also risked paying for its failures.

Mr. Trudeau can say his government is listening to some from those other parties. Far more importantly, from a variety of folks assembled to cross a variety of political, regional and representative lines.

That could be useful in negotiations with the United States. The trade talks will probably drag on, as President Donald Trump seems unable to move complex initiatives through Congress. And sometimes the political tension of trade talks comes from people fretting – dairy farmers fear they might be sacrificed, or some other group hears something that worries them. Politicians move to reassure them, and that can shrink the negotiators' latitude to negotiate. An advisory council helps the government suggest a broader spectrum of people are in the loop.

Some of those people might have some bright ideas for negotiations. There government also unveiled a mini-diplomatic shuffle that sent a senior trade official to Washington as deputy ambassador. It's good to beef up the team. Political opponents will be less thrilled that entrepreneur Rana Sarkar, a former Liberal candidate and friend of Mr. Trudeau's principal secretary, Gerald Butts, was named consul-general to San Francisco. The announcement of a multipartisan advisory committee makes that a little easier to sell.

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But when NAFTA talks really get tough, don't expect this advisory council to be in the thick of it. At that point, the chief negotiator, Steve Verheul, will be taking the pulse of industries that really have skin in the game, and clearing the trade-offs through the Prime Minister's Office. But going in, assembling a group of varied interests for advice helps the Liberal government send the message that in NAFTA talks with Mr. Trump, the whole country is in the same boat.

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